Even if you’ve become accustomed to hearing the term “healthy fats” over the past few years, some skepticism is forgivable. After all, we’ve been inundated for decades with anti-fat messaging. Can a fat truly be good for you? Or is it the case that all fats are bad, and some are just less bad for you than others?

The truth is, our bodies need fats in order to function properly, which is why nutrition experts refer to them as “essential macronutrients.” And unlike a few decades ago, consumption of dietary fat is no longer considered the main culprit in obesity. Furthermore, experts now understand that some fats are actively beneficial to our health. But that certainly doesn’t mean you should go crazy eating any fats indiscriminately. Understanding the different types of fats, which to seek out, which to avoid, and what foods contain them, is one of the keys to reducing inflammation and maintaining your overall health.

Four types of fats

Perhaps the easiest way to categorize fats is this…

  • Saturated (natural and bad)
  • Trans (artificial and bad)
  • Unsaturated (natural and good)

That may be oversimplifying slightly, but it’s a good shorthand for most people to use. Within the unsaturated category there are two subcategories, monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) and polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs). Splitting up the unsaturated category, we end up with four types of fats:

  • Saturated (natural and bad)
  • Trans (artificial and bad)
  • Polyunsaturated (natural and good)
  • Monounsaturated (natural and good)

Here’s what to know about those four categories.

Saturated fats (natural and bad)

Another oversimplified but handy rule of thumb is that if the fat comes from an animal, it’s saturated and therefore unhealthy. Saturated fats are found in meat products (and that includes not just beef but also poultry and pork), and full-fat dairy. But saturated fats don’t exclusively come from animals. Common non-animal sources are the tropical plant-based oils…palm oil, palm kernel oil, and coconut oil (Besides being bad for your health, these tropical oils take a terrible toll on the environment, which gives you further incentive to avoid them).

Saturated fats have been associated with numerous health problems, including increased chronic inflammation, elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure, the buildup of plaques in blood vessels, and overall worse cardiovascular health. Despite the popularity of some fad diets that call for outsized consumption of animal fats (such as the keto diet, the carnivore diet, and the paleo diet), the US Government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults consume 22 or fewer grams of saturated fats per day.

Trans fats (artificial and bad)

Artificial trans fats (sometimes called trans fatty acids) could be a poster child for ultra-processed foods. Designed to be economical and to make foods more craveable, they’re created industrially by food scientists using a process called partial hydrogenation (You probably recognize that term from reading ingredients labels containing phrases like “partially hydrogenated oil” or “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.”). After the collection of overwhelming evidence of trans fats’ detrimental health effects, the FDA took away their “Generally Recognized as Safe” designation in 2015, but it’s still worth checking the labels on foods because unscrupulous manufacturers may still be inserting trans fats into their products. Trans fats appear in ultra-processed foods including margarine and butter substitutes, frozen pizzas, coffee creamers, microwave popcorn, refrigerated doughs, and ready-made pies and pastries. Obviously, the best way to avoid trans fats is not to eat ultra-processed foods, but that’s not always possible. So always read the label to make sure the food contains no trans fats.

Note that dairy products also contain, in small amounts, a form of trans fats that is natural and that has not been associated with poor health effects. As long as the dairy or meat product you’re purchasing is not highly processed, it’s safe to eat it despite it technically containing trans fat.

Monounsaturated fats (natural and good)

These fats are found in plant foods and are highly beneficial. In studies, they’ve been shown to lower the risk of heart disease by reducing blood cholesterol and triglyceride, and even help with weight loss. Good sources of MUFAs include oils made from olives, peanuts, canola, sesame, and safflower, as well as avocadoes and virtually all nuts and seeds, including peanuts.

Polyunsaturated fats (natural and good)

There’s considerable overlap in both the sources and the health benefits of PUFAs and MUFAs. You can get PUFAs from sunflower seeds, soybeans, tofu, walnuts, and fish. The two main categories of PUFAs are omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

Omega-3s, most abundant in fatty fish, have been associated with numerous health benefits, including reduced inflammation, proper immune function, brain health, and decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. Although a study made headlines in 2022 purporting to link omega-3s with increased risk of atrial fibrillation, it used a higher dosage than one would get naturally through diet, and its study population was people with excessively high levels of triglycerides. Omega-3s are classified as “essential” nutrients because they’re needed for good health but our bodies can’t make them ourselves…we have to get them through food. That’s why it’s important to eat oily fish or to take a supplement.

You can get omega-6s from salad dressings, mayonnaise, and oils made from safflower, sunflower, or soybeans. Their health benefits are similar to those of omega-3s.  

Fats in moderation

Eating oily fish, using olive oil in your cooking, eating avocado in various forms, and snacking on nuts and seeds are all great ways to get the unsaturated fats you need. Extra virgin olive oil, in particular, has been well studied for its health benefits, including lower inflammation, protection against certain cancers, and reduced risk of rheumatoid arthritis and depression. In one study, consuming more than half a tablespoon per day of extra virgin olive oil was linked to 18% lower risk of coronary heart disease. Yet, while unsaturated fats bring a host of health benefits, they are, like other fats, high in calories. Just a single tablespoon of olive oil, for example, contains 120 calories. So be mindful of how many calories you’re consuming. After all, it’s possible to gain weight just from eating healthy foods, as long as you’re consuming more calories than you’re burning.

Related Articles